Penang's Hill Station

This post was written by Frances Wilks.

Tourists tend to flock up Penang Hill for the view and for the cooler temperatures but, as Frances Wilks explains, this collection of hills has a heritage going back a quarter of a millennium to the earliest expats and the founding of Penang. Join her on her adventure as she encounters the Hill’s King and visits the place where the monkeys come to drink.

PENANG HILL, or Bukit Bendera (Flagstaff Hill) to give it its correct name, is the oldest hill station in Malaysia. Not only that, it actually has a Hill Station, the terminus of the exciting ride to the summit by rack-and-pinion railway, now nearly a hundred years old. Recently restored and carrying a super-fast train, it’s capable of ferrying passengers to the top in five minutes at peak times, although it usually takes a more leisurely fifteen minutes.

The older train, originally with wooden carriages (the modern one has red and white metal ones) was even more laid-back.The journey took half an hour and required a change of trains at Middle Station, half way up. With more sophisticated cable technology, the two tracks have been made into one and Middle Station has been closed to all, except residents. It is possible, however, to alight at some of the other halts, such as Claremont, Moniot Road, or Upper Tunnel Station, by arrangement with the driver. They make great starting points for rambling along some of the many trails of Penang Hill.

Hilly History

In Colonial days, hill stations were an important feature of expatriate life, as the great heat of the tropics, mitigated by neither electric fans nor air-conditioners, sapped the health of the settlers, who then required periodic escapes to cooler air for restoration. Although Penang Hill lacks the vice-regal majesty of Simla in Himalayan India or the cosy mock Tudor of Nuwara Eliya, the capital of Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, it nevertheless has its own considerable charms.

Many bungalows – most with British-sounding names such as Edgecliff, Richmond, Fairmount and South view – were built on the summit of Penang Hill to provide government servants and army officers with a change of scene.The most famous of these, Convalescent, now in a state of magnifi cent disrepair, is said to have housed soldiers convalescing from the Crimean War, who were brought to Penang from the Black Sea via the newly opened Suez Canal. As the Crimean War took place in the 1850s and the Suez Canal only opened in 1867, it is an unlikely but rather charming fable.

It is known for sure, however, that the founder of Penang, Francis Light, built himself a house on one of the peaks of the hill, now called Strawberry Hill on account of the strawberry plantation he created there. In those days, people travelled up and down the hill on foot or were carried in sedan chairs. After a while, Light gave Strawberry Hill to his good friend, David Brown, and moved to a nearby peak, Government Hill, where he built a magnificent house, Bel Retiro, now the Governor of Penang’s retreat.

Although David Brown’s house burnt down in the 19th century, the reconstruction which now houses a restaurant of the same name is said to be a close copy of it, lacking only the magnificent Anglo-Indian portico of the original.You can enjoy a quiet lunch in the garden or cocktails on the newly opened terrace, both of which boast amazing views of George Town and the Straits beyond. On a clear day you can see the entire length of the Penang Bridge snaking across the water and the foothills of the great chain of mountains which stretch down Peninsular Malaysia on the mainland.

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Source: Penang International December 2012 -January 2013

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